What we learn in the Mary Harron-headed biopic The Notorious Bettie Page (2005), though, is that life for the titular Page was not as joyful as she made it seem in the photographs in which she appeared. While we’re surprised — and relieved — to find that the men and women who photographed her at her peak mostly let her call the shots (by no means does Page seem exploited), the model was nonetheless consistently disappointed with herself and with her life.
Though she paid the bills stripping for eager audiences and though she found a generally supportive crowd in the pin-up community, she really wanted to be an actress — and never made it. She always wanted to live an ideal life as a wife and mother, but only lived through several divorces, with no children to follow.
Page’s life is doubtlessly primed for the biopic treatment. In addition to all the highs and lows she faced during her ‘50s pinnacle, she endured a tumultuous middle age, too.
After she retired in 1958, she tried to become a Christian missionary, but was rejected because of her failed marriages. She attempted to get a master’s degree in education, but dropped out. She married twice in the late ‘60s.
When she moved to California near the end of the ‘70s, she started having trouble with mental illness: after a nervous breakdown in 1979, she had an altercation with her landlady, was diagnosed as having acute schizophrenia, and spent a year and a half in a psychiatric institution.
But even after being released from the latter, violent episodes continued, and so she was placed under state supervision until 1992. Unexpectedly, she experienced a resurgence in popularity during that time after popular pin-up artist Olivia De Berardinis began frequently using her as a subject.
But The Notorious Bettie Page, despite notably recreating classic pin-up shots and shoots, doesn’t necessarily highlight the portion of Page’s life which made her such a compelling figure. Though it’s intriguing to watch the initial boom her unconventional career saw at the dawn of the Playboy era, we find that perusing through her extensive Wikipedia page is much more enthralling than the film itself.
As a result of its cherry-picking, and romanticizing, so many of the earlier parts of her career, the feature feels more frivolously entertaining than it does substantial. This is furthered by Harron’s stressing of the film’s more stylistic aspects: lensed either in bloomy black and white or in primary colored, home video-esque fuzz, all is dressed in the same otherworldly glow that proliferated in much of Page’s most viewed photographs. It’s a rise and fall scenario that gussies up the rise and pillows the fall.
As such, The Notorious Bettie Page could be much more than it is. But what it is is still diverting and carefully crafted, topped off by an exquisite — and both literally and emotionally naked — Gretchen Mol performance. And it does a convincing job deconstructing Page’s legend: while it’s easy to be tempted to idolize this sex icon, this movie reminds us that she was simply a working woman with a dream, didn’t thrive in seeing that dream though, and yet still managed to make a cultural mark. The film moves us. So it's the unexplored terrain that get to our heads. B
1 Hr., 30 Mins.
The Notorious Bettie Page November 10, 2017
ith her grown-out, jet-black Louise Brooks mane, hourglass frame, and effortless exuberance in front of the camera, it makes sense that Bettie Page (1923-2008) grew to become one of the most iconic pin-up girls of the Nuclear Age. Her look was at once classic and forward-thinkingly bold; her disposition was playful rather than inherently lascivious; and her willingness to pose nude in front of camera seemed inspired less by a desire to appease men and more by a liking of letting her body be freed and celebrated. Page made exhibitionism look fun.